I read a great article today about Sister Ray Records in London. It was my favourite record store in the capital. Or at least - I thought it was. In fact, Sister Ray was not my favourite record shop because I liked Sister Ray. It was my favourite record shop because it fitted a romantic, nostalgic notion about London independent record shops.
And that ‘nostalgic’ bit is kind of weird, because I didn’t grow up in London, but in a suburb about 13,000 miles away at the bottom of the planet. And I’m not nostalgic about Jim’s Record Spot in Panmure, even if that was where I bought my first album with my own money (David Bowie’s ‘Scary Monsters’, since you ask - but it was a toss-up between that and Donna Summer’s ‘The Wanderer’).
London independent record shops mean something. And to me, Sister Ray encapsulated that. Fine. But it’s not a great way to continue to do business. As Brett points out in his article - when you actually look at it on its own merits, and take all that nostalgia stuff away, Sister Ray was dark, overpriced and staffed by people who’d rather you’d just go away. And that might have been fine once. It just isn’t now. There’s no room for any of that. Things have changed.
But that’s symptomatic of a wider problem, rather than a misreading of the times by a single record store.
No business is a logical necessity
The whole recorded music industry was developed in response to a series of social forces, market forces and technological forces. Along the way, it contributed to a fair share of its own market, technological and (particularly) social changes. But it has always existed in relationship to those phenomena.
And in all the discussion about the online music environment, I don’t think it’s ever been made really clear that the record industry is neither a naturally occurring phenomenon, nor a necessarily permanent fixture. It grew up less than 100 years ago in response to a bunch of forces that have since changed again. Not changing in response seems like, to put it bluntly, kind of a Sister Ray thing to do.
I am, it has to be said, nostalgic about that David Bowie record I owned. It was a great record, it was on good vinyl, and I played it until it fell to bits. But I don’t think that Jim’s Record Spot in Panmure should still be selling it alongside Donna Summer records, just because that’s what they’ve always done (actually, they went out of business years ago - but you should consider them - and Sister Ray - as metaphors, rather than real record shops).
My prediction - sorry
Now, I make a point of saying that I can’t predict the future. I get asked to a lot, and I simply won’t. Anyone who says that they know where the music industry is going is either a liar or a fool. Either way, ignore them.
But I can tell you what the future of the music industry WON’T be. The future will not be the past.
So if you’re doing what you were doing ten or even five years ago, you are simply not compatible. If you have not sought to understand all of the social, technological and market forces that have come into play, and you are not undergoing an aggressive period of radical change - or, better yet, completely redesigning your business from scratch - then you might as well take your ball and go home.
Because while I might feel very sad about the demise of your business, and feel an odd nostalgia about what you have meant to me throughout my life - you are not the future.
Something else is.